HAVANA, Cuba — It’s been more than a decade since Christmas was restored to national holiday status on this communist-run island, but don’t confuse the kindly old man with the bushy white beard on government billboards for the jolly fellow in the flying sleigh.
That’s Karl Marx up there, not Kris Kringle.
And yet, ever since the late Pope John Paul II made a historic trip to Cuba in 1998, Christmas has been gradually returning as a public holiday. There are no fake Santas at the state-run shopping centers or carolers in the streets, but the island seems to embrace La Navidad more and more openly each year. Government stores now stock plastic Christmas trees and gaudy ornaments, and Christmas lights can be seen twinkling in scattered Cuban homes and apartment buildings.
“We’re going to have a big celebration this year,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, standing outside a department store in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood with his twin brother, Ruben. Rodriguez lives in Spain, but traveled back to the island to spend the holidays with his family.
“We love Christmas,” his brother Ruben said.
For a country whose holiday calendar is otherwise dominated by the Castro government’s political and historical commemorations, the celebration of Christmas is still an evolving process, wrapped in all the economic contradictions and religious accommodations of contemporary Cuba.
As relations between the government and the island’s church leaders improve, the tradition has even earned a small space in Cuba’s state-controlled media. For the second year in a row, government-run television has broadcast a tape of a Christmas celebration at Cuba’s National Cathedral, including a message from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the island’s highest-ranking Catholic official.
Ortega spoke directly to Cuba’s “divided families,” and praised new Obama administration policies that have lifted travel and financial restrictions for Cubans living in the U.S. who have relatives on the island.
“Families are happy this year to be able to welcome relatives from the United States who wanted to visit them but could not,” Ortega said. “For that we thank God.”
Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the Christmas holiday was widely observed on the island, reflecting both Spanish traditions and American cultural influences. But Cuban authorities cancelled Christmas celebrations in 1969, saying they interfered with the country’s sugar harvest. While many Cubans continued to celebrate the holiday in private, public displays were discouraged.
Much of Cuba’s holiday enthusiasm was redirected to New Year’s Eve, as that date became a kind of secular alternative to Dec. 25. Cuba celebrates Jan. 1 as the anniversary of the “Triumph of the Revolution” — the day in 1959 that Fidel Castro took power — so with Christmas diminished, many Cubans adopted New Year’s Eve as their end-of-year occasion, gathering with family to exchange gifts and share a traditional feast of roast pork, apple cider and Spanish candy bars called turrones, among other delights.
The Christmas spirit began creeping back in 1990, when Cuba removed references to atheism from its constitution, and allowed Christians and other religious believers to join the Communist Party. After Pope John Paul II visited in 1998 and met with Fidel Castro, Dec. 25 was restored as an official national holiday.
These days, one of Cuba’s most moving Christmas spectacles occurs at Havana Joe Marti International Airport, where charter flights from Miami and elsewhere arrive with teary-eyed Cubans carrying huge bundles of gifts. Entire families stand outside the terminal to greet their loved ones, as brothers and daughters and grandparents rush to embrace relatives after years of separation, in some cases.
But for Cubans who don’t have relatives coming from abroad to help them financially, or who depend on woefully inadequate government salaries, the holidays can also be a time of pain and bitterness.
“I wanted to buy my daughter a doll, but they cost $20 here,” said Alejandro Esposito, a mechanic, outside a toy store in Havana’s Miramar district. “That’s more than I make in an entire month.”
Nearby, Eglis Figueredo emerged from a department store with a miniature plastic Christmas tree, pre-decorated in silvery ornaments and plastic pine cones. Figueredo said her daughter and granddaughter were living in Peru now, and most of her extended family lived in eastern Cuba, too far to travel for the holiday. She had her church to go to on the 25th, but she said she would probably spend Christmas Eve alone.
“It’s a tough day for me,” she said. “I’ll be thinking about my daughter and my granddaughter. I hope they can come visit me soon.”